Roaring Dan Seavey: Pirate of the Great Lakes

Roaring Dan: The feds are onto you, you venison-thieving dick

Seavey’s reputation as a pirate was sealed in 1908, when he “stole” The Nellie Johnson. The scare quotes are there because Seavey claims he won the Nellie Johnson fair and square in a poker game, while the official story is that Seavey got the owners blackout drunk on hooch and made off with the boat while they slept it off, intent on moving the ship’s cargo in Chicago.

The Nellie Johnson’s skipper called in the authorities, and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Tuscarora, an armed federal customs enforcement ship, was sent to find and arrest Seavey, who was no longer in Chicago and on the lam.


While The Tuscarora patrolled the shore for Seavey, the latter had anchored The Nellie Johnson in an inland river. Once the feds got word of Seavey’s whereabouts, he switched to The Wanderer and made a break for it. Legend has it that The Tuscarora fired a cannon shot across The Wanderer’s bow, Seavey wanted no part of that business, surrendered, and was charged with piracy.

The official record is nowhere near as clear. The Historical Society of Michigan says there is no record of a cannon shot, nor is there any record of Seavey being accused of piracy. Instead, he was charged with mutiny (Seavey had been a shipmate on The Nellie Johnson at some point) and sedition.

And he was acquitted! No accounts have the exact reason how he got off, but they vary from a crooked Chicago lawyer, to The Nellie Johnson’s owner failing to show up, to Seavey telling the truth about winning the boat. Regardless, he was a pirate forevermore.

Roaring Dan: Selling out to the man

The government decided that they needed to do something about all the criminal activity on the Great Lakes, and they found just the man to do it: Dan Seavey.

Not long after his acquittal, the former Roaring Dan became Marshal Dan and was charged with cracking down on the rash of bootlegging, venison smuggling, and prostitution that plagued the Wisconsin/Michigan coast. You could charitably say that no one was better equipped to suss these things out. You could also say that just by putting Seavey on the payroll, the government had wiped out a major source of the malfeasance.


Dan Seavey’s tombstone // Photo courtesy of the Door County Maritime Museum

Some accounts say Seavey returned to his criminal ways during Prohibition. Others say he suffered a burn injury in a mysterious sawmill fire and was forced to retire. Still others say he stuck to the right side of the law and found Jesus.

All accounts, however, indicate that Seavey spent his final years living with his daughter, and died in a nursing home in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, in 1949. If this seems like an oddly subdued exit for such a colorful character, Milwaukee’s Great Lakes Distillery bottles Roaring Dan’s Rum, so you can better honor the Captain’s rowdier days.

Just don’t steal anything. People are more uptight about that stuff now.

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